I recently took an abortive holiday in Canberra, the majestic and much-maligned capital city of Australia. In this time of plague, border controls and quarantines, holidaying in one’s own country is really the only option left for a summer getaway. Why an “abortive” holiday? Well, as it turned out, I couldn’t avoid virus-related border chaos even within my own country! Read on to find out.
I was supposed to be visiting a friend on this trip to Canberra. An old school friend: we’d both gone our separate ways (to live in separate cities) after we finished high school together in 2012. I’d seen him only once since we left school eight years ago—I visited him when he was studying in Melbourne, which was my first visit to the delightful and now much-beleaguered city of Melbourne.
As it turned out, he would be in self-isolation for the entire duration of my visit. He had unwittingly gone to visit family in Sydney for Christmas, unbeknownst to him that a cluster of coronavirus cases would break out in Sydney, leading to much of the rest of the country, including the Australian Capital Territory (wherein Canberra is located), to impose border controls against people arriving from Sydney, requiring them to go into self quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
Ho hum. I wouldn’t be able to see my friend (apart from maybe through a window), but I decided to go ahead with my trip to Canberra anyway; a holiday is a holiday, even one spent on my own. I had the better part of a 3 week break from work anyway, what else was I going to fill it with? I don’t mind solo travelling. On balance, I prefer to share my travel experiences, but solo travel comes with the advantage of being completely free to do what you want with your time.
The departure terminal was completely packed. That sounds like an uninteresting observation to make about an Australian airport at the beginning of January, at the height of summer holidays. But it’s an interesting observation to make when a pandemic made the idea of travel, for most of 2020, an out-of-reach mirage. Look at all these people, I thought: like me, choosing to holiday in Canberra of all places, they’re desperately trying to claw back as much of normality as they can. They’d rather be flying to Japan or Italy (so would I), but Canberra, or Melbourne, or Cairns, is a tolerable substitute while Japan is impossible. It’s just nice to be travelling somewhere again.
I picked up my hire car after I flew into the city. This was the first time I had ever hired a car while travelling—I thought it was probably a good idea when visiting an Australian city: our cities sprawl over dozens of kilometres, their public transport tends to be inefficient and unreliable, and, in any case, all the most interesting things to see and do in our cities are outside rather than inside them, being outdoorsy and nature things.
My hire car, a Mitsubishi Eclipse, came with a long set of terms and conditions prescribing the many circumstances in which I would be required to pay thousands of dollars in dubious compensation to the hire car company. I was utterly petrified about anything happening to it as I carefully steered it out of the airport.
As I drove toward my Airbnb, though, the prettiness of the city became apparent to me. Grand, broad avenues lined with hundreds of big old trees on the sides and down the middle made Canberra a very pleasant city to drive through. This was not Brisbane, practically devoid of any greenery on residential streets; this was a city where care and planning had gone into making the feel of the city and the experience of moving through it as pleasant as possible. The architecture of the city, too, set it apart from Brisbane: few concrete apartment blocks and brick bungalows, but attractive, traditional styles, even on low-cost social housing, everywhere you looked.
After I had settled into my Airbnb (nothing to write home about—comfortable enough, but I got what I paid for for $290 for 7 nights), I decided to take a drive up to the peak of Mount Ainslie, a small mountain protruding out of the suburbs of eastern Canberra, and a favourite lookout for locals. The view from the top was impressive, and seeing Canberra from above really underlines why it’s given the nickname of the “bush capital”. Canberra is compact for an Australian city, and encircled by bushland which also creeps into its streets and green spaces. From above it looks like a large country town, not the national seat of power. It was, after all, a city planted on what was practically untilled bushland (there was a small hamlet there, I believe) for the purpose of putting the national capital somewhere neither Sydney nor Melbourne would be jealous of.
For dinner that night I went to a little, family-owned Chinese restaurant in Dickson, where I was staying. It was called The East Kitchen and I’d recommend any Canberrans reading this to check it out: an unassuming place both on the outside and the inside, looking a little daggy next to the glitzy, Instagrammable Korean BBQ’s, sushi trains and dumpling houses around it, but the food was the kind of authentic, mouth-watering fare you’ll only get from a rinkydink little Chinese restaurant run by a toothless old Cantonese couple who’ve been cooking the same dishes for 60 years. If, like me, you get the Sichuan Kung Po Fish with a side of steamed rice, you will be immensely grateful for the recommendation.
I was the only guest in the restaurant other than a table of four: a young couple and an older couple. The younger couple were possibly the most bourgeois people I’ve ever seen. They were dressed like hippies (dreadlocked hair, baggy clothes), but it was clear from their voices that they were privilege personified. They spoke with the kind of genteel, sophisticated Australian accents that, in Brisbane, tend to be heard mostly among graduate students and members of humanities faculties. If I had to guess, I’d say they worked in academia or some nook of the Department of Human Services.
I don’t say this to disparage these people: I have the same kind of Australian accent. I’m every bit as bourgeois as them—it’s the only reason I took any notice. I only mention this because Canberra, unlike Brisbane, seems like the kind of place where these kinds of people—young, trendy, bright, a bit bohemian, lefty—tend to cluster and breed. The kind of people who, in London, would live in Islington and Clerkenwell. It makes sense when you think about it: Canberra is essentially an artificial city built to house the federal government and its gigantic bureaucracy. The public service, as opposed to potentially more lucrative careers in the private sector, attracts graduates and young professionals with this profile. According to this hypothesis, Canberra is a little enclave of the most middle class people in Australia. It actually does remind me of the social profile of parts of London I frequented when I was there.
On my second day in Canberra, it was time to see some of the big sites.
Parliament House was first—the building housing the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia. From the outside, it’s an impressive and somewhat unorthodox structure. It’s like no traditional parliament building, which tend to be built in some form of traditional architecture such as Gothic or Neoclassical (as Australia’s Old Parliament House was); it looks like something Howard Roark in The Fountainhead might build in the way it seems to be an outgrowth of its surroundings, while at the same time being shamelessly a man-made structure. It seems to hug the earth, like a gigantic starfish. I’ve never been all that fond of Australia’s Parliament House, but, standing before it in person, I can’t deny it’s impressive.
Inside, I toured the House of Representatives and Senate chambers, in addition to a central committee room and a large “Great Hall” built for hosting receptions and functions. The chambers were obviously the centrepiece of the building. Seeing the loci of federal legislative power up close, a place I had only ever seen before on television, is certainly something to take in.
Next was the Australian War Memorial. The War Memorial is a great, stone, domed temple-like structure directly opposite Parliament House across Lake Burley Griffin. In my opinion, it’s one of the more impressive buildings in Australia, a fitting tribute to Australia’s war dead. The commemorative area, an open area featuring a pond with the names of Australia’s war dead across various wars carved onto the walls, lined with poppies, was particularly poignant, apart from the rather naff recording of a child reading out the names of the fallen one by one—the silence of a graveyard would be much more affecting.
The museum itself is enormous, detailed and informative. I’ll be honest, I’m not a museum person. Never have been. Like every other museum I’ve visited while travelling, I started off exploring this museum by reading every blurb and looking at every display. I ended, sick with severe museumitis and sore feet, merely scanning the displays and heading in the direction of the exit with as much dignity and tact as I could bother to muster.
It didn’t help that wars and military history don’t really interest me that much. It’s not that the displays were not high quality—I learned a lot, and many displays were very interesting (particularly the very detailed dioramas of battles)—it’s just that the nitty-gritty details of battles and weapons and campaigns and the like has always gone over my head. Wars and military history has only ever interested me insofar as it was an extension of politics and political history. So the displays that grabbed my attention most were those concerning the high-level political machinations: what was happening in Germany in the 1930s? Why were the Japanese steamrolling their way across the Pacific? Et cetera. While it’s good to collect that information in a museum like this (and many visitors will be learning this stuff for the first time through looking at the displays), it’s not the kind of thing I can’t read in a history book.
So my appraisal of the Australian War Memorial (the museum bit at least) is that it’s a fantastic attraction and a high-quality museum—just not for me.
That evening I found my way to a little pub in the suburb of Ainslie, close to where I was staying in Dickson, called Edgar’s. It was consciously mimicking the look and feel of a British pub, albeit with touches and a menu that catered to the tastes and dining habits of Australians, particular the kind of Australians who live in an affluent, trendy suburb like Ainslie, Canberra. I was glad, in any event, to have at least found an Australian pub that consciously tried to replicate the experience of a British pub, something Brisbane is unfortunately deprived of.
I knew that Canberra was located in a beautiful part of the world, and wanted, at some point in my trip, to go out and see some of the countryside, preferably by way of a hike. After some research about hiking trails around Canberra, I settled upon the Gibraltar Peak walk in the Tidbinbilla Nature Conservation Park, a climb up to the peak of what is either a large hill or a small mountain called Gibraltar Peak.
I had designated my third day in Canberra for a hike. That’s because (conscious of previous experience), if I was going to spend a whole day walking uphill, I wanted to do it before, not after, I had spent several days back-to-back wearing out my legs walking around Canberra.
I needn’t have worried because the Gibraltar Peak walk, although classed as a “challenging” hike by the National Park authorities, was a fairly comfortable and gentle climb, certainly unlike other hikes of similar length I had done which were steep uphill ascents the whole way. An advantage of hiking in the ACT, unlike Queensland, is that it’s cool, even in the middle of the day in the middle of summer. There was plenty of pretty scenery to gaze at and snap photos of along the way, and the views became more and more breath-taking the higher I climbed.
It was when I came back down from Gibraltar Peak that my trip to Canberra really took an eventful turn. I checked my notifications (I had no internet connection or phone reception on the peak), and saw a news notification: something along the lines of “Scott Morrison announces new coronavirus restrictions”. An ominous feeling came over me.
You see, I was aware, before going on my hike, that a case of the “more contagious” UK variant of coronavirus had been detected in Brisbane that morning. Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Premier of Queensland, had made the decision to put Greater Brisbane and surrounding regions under a snap 3-day hard lockdown to prevent any spread of the new variant (unnecessarily, as it turned out), and had unilaterally declared Brisbane a “coronavirus hotspot”—again, over one case.
I knew all this before I set out for Tidbinbilla in my rental car (some 45 minutes’ drive from my Airbnb in Canberra). And I did the due diligence: before I set out for Tidbinbilla, the directions from the Premier’s office in Brisbane were that, if you were a Brisbane resident currently elsewhere in Australia, you could return to Brisbane as long as it wasn’t during the 3-day lockdown period. “Well, that’s that, then,” I thought. “I don’t plan on coming back to Brisbane in the next 3 days anyway, I’ll just stick around Canberra and fly back to Brisbane the following Wednesday as I planned. No need to worry. Actually, it’s quite lucky I’m in Canberra and avoided the lockdown!” So satisfied, I set off for the drive to Tidbinbilla.
Between setting out on my hike up Gibraltar Peak, though, and returning three and a half hours’ later, a National Cabinet meeting of all the Australian heads of government had been held and Brisbane had been unanimously declared a national coronavirus hotspot (did I mention there was still only one case?). This was the point I saw the ominous notification on my phone: “Scott Morrison declares new coronavirus restrictions”. Had anything changed while I was up that mountain/large hill?
The reason for my feeling of dread was that the nation had watched, over the last two weeks, the quite shocking spectacle, after a spike in coronavirus cases in Sydney, of the State of Victoria slamming its borders shut to New South Wales, including to its own citizens who happened to be visiting New South Wales at the time. They were given barely 12 hours to get back to Victoria and, if they missed the deadline, were effectively locked out of their own state, out of their own homes and properties. So followed a mad scramble for the border in which a large number of Victorians didn’t make it across the border in time and were thereby effectively rendered refugees in their own country.
I sure as hell didn’t want something like that to happen to me, which was why I was already apprehensive about leaving Queensland for my holiday. So when I saw that notification on my phone, a feeling of dread came over me. In the Tidbinbilla Visitors Centre, I was frantically Googling the status of the border between ACT and Queensland, to check whether anything had changed since that morning. With a pang of painful resignation, I quickly found what I was looking for: the ACT Health webpage about Queensland had been updated. “If you have visited any hotspot areas in Queensland (i.e. Brisbane) since 2 January 2021, you must immediately quarantine for 14 days. You may return to Brisbane, but must do so immediately.”
“Immediately”. A little more detail would have been appreciated (such as “by 12:00pm tomorrow”), but I got the picture: I needed to get out of ACT and back to Brisbane as soon as possible, or I would be legally required to quarantine for 14 days in Canberra. Did I mention that this was all over one case?
I tried seeing if I could log into the Virgin Australia website, on my phone in the Tidbinbilla Visitors Centre, to change my Wednesday flight to that evening, but was having trouble navigating the website on my phone. I gave up and decided to drive as fast as I could the 50km back to my Airbnb in Dickson, to my laptop.
It took me about an hour, but I managed to book a new flight with Virgin back to Brisbane at 7:50pm that evening. I couldn’t change my flight: the Virgin website seemed to be struggling to process a large volume of flight change requests at the same time, and the call centre was being bombarded. So I ended up just buying a new flight for that evening (Virgin’s website seemed to handle that easily enough…)
So I packed my bags and scrambled out the door (forgetting to take with me a six-pack of Asahis in the communal fridge I had bought the previous night). I was quite concerned about making the flight on time, given that I had booked the flight only 2 hours in advance. I calculated that I’d have enough time to make the flight, providing there were no delays returning my rental car at the airport or dropping my luggage off. As it happened, there weren’t, and my decision to take a detour into a petrol station to refill my rental car’s tank didn’t waste critical minutes (I didn’t want to lose my $400 deposit over a couple of litres of fuel). The rental car return took barely 2 minutes, and, despite having trouble locating the departure terminal, I was through check-in and security within another 15 minutes.
What I felt after walking out of the security screening, my carry-on luggage passing the x-ray examination, with about an hour and a half to spare until my flight, was a mixture of relief, adrenaline, and the self-congratulatory feeling I had dodged a bullet with remarkable ease. It’s worth stressing that the unfortunate stories of the Victorians locked out of their own state had been close to the front of my mind for some weeks (I had been keenly on the lookout for signs that something similar might happen to me), and I really didn’t want to quarantine in Canberra for 14 days if I could help it. That’s why I was feeling the way I was at that moment, when I realised I had avoided what, given a few hours’ difference, may have been an unnecessary and unfortunate fate.
I bought myself a toasted salmon bagel at an airport café (I hadn’t had time to eat lunch in my scramble for the airport), and a beer—I needed one. I had time to people-watch what looked like a lot of other stressed-looking Brisbanites who also booked same-day flights back to Brisbane, escaping the prospect of 14 days’ quarantine in the place they were supposed to be taking a holiday.
The flight itself was delayed some 30-40 minutes. A flight from Brisbane had arrived at the gate our flight to Brisbane was departing. Australian Federal Police were at the gate, checking off, one-by-one, every passenger, escapees in the opposite direction from the impending Brisbane lockdown, all with that same look of mixed stress and relief we were sporting.
Finally we were on the plane. The mood was surreal; we were glad to be on the flight, but at the same time not glad. This was the first flight I had been on full of passengers effectively fleeing a state. I expect the mood in hotel quarantine facilities would be similar: we were all on that flight, not necessarily because we wanted to be, but because events outside our control and the arbitrary actions of governments gave us no other choice. That we were all returning to a city under lockdown was also a dampener on the general mood. In any event, I opened my copy of The Brothers Karamazov and spent the duration of the flight reading.
I touched down to a Brisbane in its first hours of lockdown: a real, hard, Victorian-style lockdown, where we were not even permitted to leave our houses except for certain permitted reasons. Not like the half-hearted lockdown we experienced in early 2020, which most people treated as a holiday if they weren’t blatantly flouting the barely-enforced rules. Appropriately, it was dark and wet, and, as I looked out the window of the taxi taking me back to my house, I thought that my city had the tense, fearful atmosphere that came through palpably in the historical photos of London during the Blitz.
Three days later
Three days later, with zero new cases over the weekend, lockdown was lifted on schedule. The ACT announced that, not only would it now be accepting flights from Brisbane again, but visitors from Brisbane quarantining in the ACT no longer had to quarantine the remainder of their 14 days. My reaction was along the lines of: “Are you fucking serious?”